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Category Archives: Forensic History

Criminal Mischief: Episode #16: Arsenic: An Historical and Modern Poison

Arsenic

Criminal Mischief: Episode #16: Arsenic: An Historical and Modern Poison

LISTEN: https://soundcloud.com/authorsontheair/criminal-mischief-episode-15-arsenic-an-historical-and-modern-poison

SHOW NOTES: http://www.dplylemd.com/criminal-mischief-notes/16-arsenic-an-historical.html

PAST SHOWS: http://www.dplylemd.com/criminal-mischief.html

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From HOWDUNNIT:FORENSICS

Toxicology is a relatively new science that stands on the shoulders of its predecessors: anatomy, physiology, chemistry, and medicine. Our knowledge in these sciences had to reach a certain level of sophistication before toxicology could become a reality. It slowly evolved over more than two hundred years of testing, starting with tests for arsenic. 

Arsenic had been a common poison for centuries, but there was no way to prove that arsenic was the culprit in a suspicious death. Scientist had to isolate and then identify arsenic trioxide—the most common toxic form of arsenic— in the human body before arsenic poisoning became a provable cause of death. The steps that led to a reliable test for arsenic are indicative of how many toxicological procedures developed. 

1775: Swedish chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele (1742–1786) showed that chlorine water would convert arsenic into arsenic acid. He then added metallic zinc and heated the mixture to release arsine gas. When this gas contacted a cold vessel, arsenic would collect on the vessel’s surface. 

1787: Johann Metzger (1739–1805) showed that if arsenic were heated with charcoal, a shiny, black “arsenic mirror” would form on the charcoal’s surface. 

1806: Valentine Rose discovered that arsenic could be uncovered in the human body. If the stomach contents of victims of arsenic poisoning are treated with potassium carbonate, calcium oxide, and nitric acid, arsenic trioxide results. This could then be tested and confirmed by Metzger’s test. 

1813: French chemist Mathieu Joseph Bonaventure Orfila (1787–1853) developed a method for isolating arsenic from dog tissues. He also published the first toxicological text, Traité des poisons (Treatise on Poison), which helped establish toxicology as a true science. 

1821: Sevillas used similar techniques to find arsenic in the stomach and urine of individuals who had been poisoned. This is marked as the beginning of the field of forensic toxicology. 

1836: Dr. Alfred Swaine Taylor (1806–1880) developed the first test for arsenic in human tissue. He taught chemistry at Grey’s Medical School in England and is credited with establishing the field of forensic toxicology as a medical specialty. 

1836: James Marsh (1794–1846) developed an easier and more sensitive version of Metzger’s original test, in which the “arsenic mirror” was collected on a plate of glass or porcelain. The Marsh test became the standard, and its principles were the basis of the more modern method known as the Reinsch test, which we will look at later in this chapter. 

As you can see, each step in developing a useful testing procedure for arsenic stands on what discoveries came before. That’s the way science works. Step by step, investigators use what others have discovered to discover even more. 

Acute vs. Chronic Poisoning 

At times the toxicologist is asked to determine whether a poisoning is acute or chronic. A good example is arsenic, which can kill if given in a single large dose or if given in repeated smaller doses over weeks or months. In either case, the blood level could be high. But the determination of whether the poisoning was acute or chronic may be extremely important. If acute, the suspect list may be long. If chronic, the suspect list would include only those who had long-term contact with the victim, such as a family member, a caretaker, or a family cook. 

So, how does the toxicologist make this determination? 

In acute arsenic poisoning, the ME would expect to find high levels of arsenic in the stomach and the blood, as well as evidence of corrosion and bleeding in the stomach and intestines, as these are commonly seen in acute arsenic ingestion. If he found little or no arsenic in the stomach and no evidence of acute injury in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, but high arsenic levels in the blood and tissues, he might suspect that the poisoning was chronic in nature. Here, an analysis of the victim’s hair can be invaluable. 

Hair analysis for arsenic (and several other toxins) can reveal exposure to arsenic and also give a timeline of the exposure. The reason this is possible is that arsenic is deposited in the cells of the hair follicles in proportion to the blood level of the arsenic at the time the cell was produced. 

In hair growth, the cells of the hair’s follicle undergo change, lose their nuclei, and are incorporated into the growing hair shaft. New follicular cells are produced to replace them and this cycle continues throughout life. Follicular cells produced while the blood levels of arsenic are high contain the poison, and as they are incorporated into the hair shaft the arsenic is, too. On the other hand, any follicular cells that appeared while the arsenic levels were low contain little or no arsenic. 

In general, hair grows about a half inch per month. This means that the toxicologist can cut the hair into short segments, measure the arsenic level in each, and reveal a timeline for arsenic exposure in the victim. 

Let’s suppose that a wife, who prepares all the family meals, slowly poisoned her husband with arsenic. She began by adding small amounts of the poison to his food in February and continued until his death in July. In May he was hospitalized with gastrointestinal complaints such as nausea, vomiting, and weight loss (all symptoms of arsenic poisoning). No diagnosis was made, but since he was doing better after ten days in the hospital, he was sent home. Such a circumstance is not unusual since these types of gastrointestinal symptoms are common and arsenic poisoning is rare. Physicians rarely think of it and test for it. After returning home, the unfortunate husband once again fell ill and finally died. 

As part of the autopsy procedure, the toxicologist might test the victim’s hair for toxins, and if he did, he would find the arsenic. He could then section and test the hair to determine the arsenic level essentially month by month. If the victim’s hair was three inches long, the half inch closest to the scalp would represent July, the next half inch June, the next May, and so on until the last half inch would reflect his exposure to arsenic in February, the month his poisoning began. Arsenic levels are expressed in parts per million (ppm).

An analysis might reveal a pattern like that seen in Figure 11-1. 

IMAGE in HOWDUNNIT: FORENSICS

 The toxicologist would look at this timeline of exposure and likely determine that the exposure occurred in the victim’s home. The police would then have a few questions for the wife and would likely obtain a search warrant to look for arsenic within the home. 

LINKS: 

Arsenic Poisoning (2007): CA Poison Control: https://calpoison.org/news/arsenic-poisoning-2007

Arsenic Poisoning Cases Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arsenic_poisoning_cases

Arsenic” a Murderous History: https://www.dartmouth.edu/~toxmetal/arsenic/history.html

Facts About Arsenic: LiveScience: https://www.livescience.com/29522-arsenic.html

Poison: Who Killed Napolean?: https://www.amnh.org/explore/news-blogs/on-exhibit-posts/poison-what-killed-napoleon

Victorian Poisoners: https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofEngland/Victorian-Poisoners/

12 Female Poisoners Who Killed With Arsenic: http://mentalfloss.com/article/72351/12-female-poisoners-who-killed-arsenic

 

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Criminal Mischief: Episode #07: Famous and Odd DNA Cases

 

Criminal Mischief: Episode #07: Famous and Odd DNA Cases

LISTEN: https://soundcloud.com/authorsontheair/criminal-mischief-episode-07-famous-odd-dna-cases

PAST SHOWS: http://www.dplylemd.com/criminal-mischief.html

 

FAMOUS AND ODD DNA CASES NOTES:

 

Colin Pitchfork: The Beginning

http://aboutforensics.co.uk/colin-pitchfork/

Timothy Wilson Spencer, The Southside Strangler” First US DNA Conviction

(David Vasquez—first to be exonerated by DNA)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timothy_Wilson_Spencer

http://www.digitaljournal.com/article/352011

Brown’s Chicken Murders:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brown%27s_Chicken_massacre

https://chicago.cbslocal.com/2018/01/08/browns-chicken-massacre-25-years-anniversary/

Lonnie Franklin, The Grim Sleeper: Familial DNA

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grim_Sleeper

https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-features/grim-sleeper-serial-killer-everything-you-need-to-know-252246/

James Lynn Brown: Familial DNA

https://www.ocregister.com/2012/12/04/family-members-dna-solves-1978-killing/

Gary Ridgway, The Green River Killer

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gary_Ridgway

Pierre G: Kiss DNA Foils Jewel Thief

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/france/10616806/French-jewellery-thiefs-fate-sealed-with-a-kiss-after-conviction-from-DNA-on-victim.html

David Stoddard: Dog Bite DNA Case

https://www.news5cleveland.com/news/local-news/akron-canton-news/dna-from-dogs-mouth-solves-barberton-home-invasion-suspect-david-stoddard-also-charged-with-murder

Maggot DNA Case:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22971153

Willow Martin Arson Case and Potato DNA:

http://www.courant.com/breaking-news/hc-strippers-arson-drugs-0713-20160712-story.html

https://www.mycitizensnews.com/news/2018/05/woman-sentenced-to-8-years-for-arson/

 

 
 

Criminal Mischief: Episode #06: Is It Harder To Write Crime Fiction Today?

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Criminal Mischief: Episode #06: Is It Harder To Write Crime Fiction Today?

LISTEN: https://soundcloud.com/authorsontheair/criminal-mischief-episode-06-is-it-harder-to-write-crime-fiction-today

Is It Harder To Write Crime Fiction Today? Notes:

Do modern forensic science and police investigative techniques make creating compelling crime fiction more difficult? Are there simply too many balls to keep in the air? Too much to consider? Or is now little different from then?

The Past, the present, and the future

Forensic Science timeline—-a fairly new discipline

Basic Science, then Medicine, finally forensic science

Personal ID

Visual
Bertillon
West Case
Facial recognition
Behavioral Profiling

Prints, ABO type, DNA, DNA Phenotype

Fingerprints—-then and now

Vucetich—the Rojas case
Stella Nickell Case
Touch DNA
Touch Toxicology

Toxicology

From arsenic to GC/MS

Blood Typing

ABO can exclude but not ID

DNA

Nuclear
Mitochondrial
Familial—Grim Sleeper case
Phenotypic Analysis

Electronics

Cell phones, computers, emails, texts, VMs

LINKS: 

Forensic Science Timeline: http://www.dplylemd.com/articles/forensic-science-timeline.html

History of Fingerprints: http://onin.com/fp/fphistory.html

Brief History of Poisons and Forensic Toxicology: https://www.okorieokorocha.com/poisons-and-forensic-toxicology/

History of Forensic Ballistics: https://ifflab.org/the-history-of-forensic-ballistics-ballistic-fingerprinting/

FORENSICS FOR DUMMIES: http://www.dplylemd.com/book-details/forensics-for-dummies.html

HOWDUNNIT:FORENSICS: http://www.dplylemd.com/book-details/howdunnit-forensics.html

Stella Nickell Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stella_Nickell

DNA Profiling: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DNA_profiling

Mitochondrial DNA: http://www.dplylemd.com/articles/mitochondrial-dna.html

Familial DNA: http://www.dnaforensics.com/familialsearches.aspx

Grim Sleeper/Lonnie Franklin case: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grim_Sleeper

Is DNA Phenotyping Accurate: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/innovation/how-accurately-can-scientists-reconstruct-persons-face-from-dna-180968951/

DNA Phenotyping Examples: https://snapshot.parabon-nanolabs.com/examples

Bertillon and the West Brothers: http://www.nleomf.org/museum/news/newsletters/online-insider/november-2011/bertillon-system-criminal-identification.html

 

Criminal Mischief #02: Cause and Manner of Death Notes

Criminal Mischief #02: The ME’s 3 most important determinations: Cause, Manner, and Time of Death

Part I: Cause and Manner of Death Notes

CAUSE/MECHANISM OF DEATH:

Cause of death is why the individual died
Heart attack, GSW, traumatic brain injury, diseases

Mechanism-physiological derangement that causes death

One cause—several mechanisms

Example: MI-arrhythmia, cardiogenic shock, rupture 

Example: GSW—heart or brain damage, exsanguination. wound infection

One mechanism—several causes

Example: Exsanguination—GSW, ulcer, meds, disease 

Just as a cause of death can lead to many different mechanisms of death, any cause of death can have several different manners of death. A gunshot wound to the head can’t be a natural death, but it could be deemed homicidal, suicidal, or accidental.

MANNERS OF DEATH: For what purpose and by whose hand

NATURAL: Natural deaths are due to the workings of Mother Nature in that the death results from a natural disease process. Heart attacks, cancers, pneumonia, and strokes are common natural causes of death. This is by far the largest category of death that the ME sees. 

ACCIDENTAL: Accidental deaths result from an unplanned and unforeseeable sequence of events. Falls, automobile accidents, and in-home electrocutions are examples of accidental deaths. 

SUICIDAL: Suicides are deaths that come by the person’s own hand. Intentional self-inflicted gunshots, drug overdoses, or self-hangings are suicidal deaths. 

HOMICIDAL: Homicides are deaths that occur by the hand of another. Note that a homicide is not necessarily a murder. Homicide is a determination of the ME; murder is a legal charge that is determined by the courts. Though each would be ruled a homicide by the ME, the legal jeopardy is much different for a court verdict of negligent homicide as opposed to first- or second-degree murder. 

UNDETERMINED OR UNCLASSIFIED: This extra category is used in situations where the coroner can’t accurately determine the appropriate category. 

Examples:
Car/pedestrian
Heroin/Drug OD
GSW

Psychological Autopsy

Manner determines whether there is an investigation

Manner not fixed—can change
Proximate cause— the cascade of events

To Learn more about this subject grab a copy of
FORENSICS FOR DUMMIES

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Listen to the Podcast: https://soundcloud.com/authorsontheair/criminal-mischief-02-cause-and-manner-of-death

Follow the shows on FB: https://www.facebook.com/criminalmischiefwithDPLyle/

See all shows here: http://www.dplylemd.com/criminal-mischief.html

 

Holmes, Thorndyke, Locard, Gross, and the Modern CSI

There are no bigger names in the history and development of modern crime scene investigation than French investigator Edmond Locard and his Austrian counterpart Hans Gross. These two men shaped the development of crime scene investigation and even today their techniques create the cornerstone of forensic science. Locard’s Exchange Principle underlies every forensic technique.

locard1

EDMOND LOCARD

hans-gross

HANS GROSS

They were also great fans of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and R. Austin Freeman’s Dr. John Evelyn Thorndyke. Locard even suggested that students of police procedure read the Sherlock Holmes stories and learn from his techniques.

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Both the real-life investigators and the fictional ones had one thing in common: the careful and meticulous approach to any crime scene, taking care to collect all useful evidence, while not damaging or contaminating it.

In my book Forensics For Dummies, the methods and techniques used to evaluate a crime scene and collect evidence are explained in great detail. Check it out if you want to know more about the techniques that saw their origin more than 100 years ago.

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The Queen of Poisons and The Marsh Test

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Arsenic has, over the centuries, garnered many colorful names. It was called the “queen of poisons” because it was so readily available, easy to use, highly effective, and untraceable. Thus, it was used by many famous historical poisoners. Some called it the “king of poisons” but since over the years,  female killers have favored poisons, “queen” seems more apt. It was also called “inheritance powder,” for obvious reasons—-once the estate holder is dead and gone, the heirs can party down.

Arsenic is the nearly perfect poison. This was definitely true centuries ago when there was no way to trace it. But what about today, with modern toxicological techniques? Unfortunately, arsenic is still a pretty good choice for the poisoner. It’s not often looked for in unexplained deaths and its effects mimic many medical conditions, particularly neurological and gastrointestinal.

Back a couple of centuries ago, because of its common use, a method for finding arsenic in the dead or ill became an imperative. There were many steps along this path. This search for arsenic was essentially the beginning of forensic toxicology.

From HOWDUNNIT: FORENSICS

Arsenic had been a common poison for centuries, but there was no way to prove that arsenic was the culprit in a suspicious death. Scientists had to isolate and then identify arsenic trioxide—the most common toxic form of arsenic— in the human body before arsenic poisoning became a provable cause of death. The steps that led to a reliable test for arsenic are indicative of how many toxicological procedures developed.

1775: Swedish chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele (1742–1786) showed that chlorine water would convert arsenic into arsenic acid. He then added metallic zinc and heated the mixture to release arsine gas. When this gas contacted a cold vessel, arsenic would collect on the vessel’s surface.

1787: Johann Metzger (1739–1805) showed that if arsenic were heated with char- coal, a shiny, black “arsenic mirror” would form on the charcoal’s surface.

1806: Valentine Rose discovered that arsenic could be uncovered in the human body. If the stomach contents of victims of arsenic poisoning are treated with potassium carbonate, calcium oxide, and nitric acid, arsenic trioxide results. This could then be tested and confirmed by Metzger’s test.

1813: French chemist Mathieu Joseph Bonaventure Orfila (1787–1853) devel- oped a method for isolating arsenic from dog tissues. He also published the first toxicological text, Traité des poisons (Treatise on Poison), which helped establish toxicology as a true science.

1821: Sevillas used similar techniques to find arsenic in the stomach and urine of individuals who had been poisoned. This is marked as the beginning of the field of forensic toxicology.

1836: Dr. Alfred Swaine Taylor (1806–1880) developed the first test for arsenic in human tissue. He taught chemistry at Grey’s Medical School in England and is credited with establishing the field of forensic toxicology as a medical specialty.

1836: James Marsh (1794–1846) developed an easier and more sensitive version of Metzger’s original test, in which the “arsenic mirror” was collected on a plate of glass or porcelain. The Marsh test became the standard, and its principles were the basis of the more modern method known as the Reinsch test, which we will look at later in this chapter.

As you can see, each step in developing a useful testing procedure for arsenic stands on what discoveries came before. That’s the way science works. Step by step, investigators use what others have discovered to discover even more.

I ran across an excellent article on the Marsh Test and it’s definitely worth a read. I can imagine when this was performed in the courtroom it did elicit a few gasps.

A few useful links:

http://www.dplylemd.com/book-details/howdunnit-forensics.html

http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/marsh-test-arsenic-poisoning

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sandra-hempel-/arsenic-the-nearperfect-m_b_4398140.html

http://www.dartmouth.edu/~toxmetal/arsenic/history.html

 

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The World’s First Homicide?

No one knows for sure when the world’s first homicide took place – – other than Cain and Abel, that is. But it just might have happened 43,000 years ago in northern Spain. A skull retrieved from the Sima de los Huesos (Pit of Bones) in the Atapuerca Mountains showed two circular puncture wounds in the forehead of the skull. The skull had been found shattered into 52 fragments but miraculously was nearly complete. Once it had been reassembled the two wounds were easily identified. Researchers believe they were made by the same instrument and that they were not consistent with a simple fall into the cave shaft.

When you examine the skull it definitely looks as though some pointed instrument, most likely a stone tool or weapon, had delivered the blows. Of course, the assailant could claim self-defense, but this looks like a homicide.

 
 
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